A skincare line is thriving in the pandemic — by pivoting, and staying the course
A conversation with Ellie Bianca founder, Evelyne Nyairo.
As Vice President and National Lead, Women Entrepreneurs at BDC, Laura Didyk used to spend most of her time traversing the country, interacting with women business owners. Now working from home, she’s keeping those conversations going — starting with the founder of Ellie Bianca skincare, Evelyne Nyairo.
When Evelyne Nyairo was 16, she moved from Kenya to Canada on her own. Full of ambition, optimism and courage, she managed to put herself through both a Bachelor and a Masters of Science degree with a focus on the environment and chemistry.
A serial entrepreneur, she’s been a longtime client of BDC. In 2013, she launched Ellie Bianca — an all natural, environmentally sustainable, and socially conscious skincare line. Speaking with Eveylne, it’s clear that her now sixteen-year-old daughter Ellie provided far more inspiration than a brand name. Ellie Bianca is a company built on Evelyne’s desire to be an example to her daughter of what women are capable of, and to empower other women to succeed (from sourcing ingredients from women-run co-ops in Chad and around Africa, to mentoring other women entrepreneurs in Canada and around the world).
I caught up with Evelyne to find out how the pandemic has been impacting her business — Ellie Bianca has launched three new products since the start — and what’s keeping her motivated.
LAURA: Let’s start with the most important question — how are you doing?
EVELYNE: It has been good. Business has been busy — we’ve been going non-stop, which has kept my mind off all the trouble. And I’m loving the fact that I am at home, and I see Ellie every day.
LAURA: I know your daughter Ellie inspired the name of your brand, Ellie Bianca, but I don’t know the whole story of how you got started in skincare. Can you share a bit of that?
EVELYNE: Well, prior to Ellie Bianca, I was running an environmental engineering company, working mainly with oil and gas clients. I travelled all over the world for projects, and on one of those trips, I found myself in Central Africa, in Chad. One of the first things I noticed was how beautiful the women’s skin looked. They were just glowing. I’ve always loved skincare products, so I asked about it, and it turns out they were using shea butter. In the south of Chad there are shea trees all over. Being the scientist that I am, I started researching shea and other species native to this eco-region, understanding the chemical properties and associated skin benefits.
Another thing I quickly noticed in Chad was how hard the women worked. They’re on the farms, they are in the market selling — and sadly, the men are on the other side of the market drinking beer. On my second trip, I had been working in the hot sun the whole day, and I asked my guide where I could buy some mangoes. He takes me to this wild mango field where the husband is sitting on the side enjoying the shade, and the kids and the mom are working.
It is the woman who helps me, who gives me the mangoes, but when I go to pay her, my guide snatches the bill and tells me I have to pay the man, because it will be seen as a sign of disrespect if I don’t. After some protest I reluctantly did it, but in that moment I was brought back to the boardrooms right here in Calgary, where I’ve dealt with some of my own challenges. And I thought, this happens everywhere in different forms. I knew I had to do something, to start something, that was going to advance women. I thought of my own daughter, Ellie, and other young girls like her. They need to see women overcoming challenges, they need to see us rising and they will learn to do the same.
I started off sourcing shea butter from women-run co-ops in Chad, and now everything we do, from our ingredients to package design, we make it a priority to support women. We are also an all-woman team.
LAURA: You launched in 2013. Fast forward to 2020, and you have a broad skincare line that you’re selling worldwide. And then the pandemic hits…
EVELYNE: When the lockdown began, I kept getting all these notifications from Service Canada saying, ‘We are short with hand sanitizers.’ They were calling on industry to step forward, so I started to think, what will it take if I was to formulate this? I went to the office and I started putting a plan together.
LAURA: What was that process like, planning and formulating and launching a new product during a pandemic?
EVEYLYNE: There was so much to consider. Figuring out the ingredients, testing the formulation, sourcing everything for production. I needed to do costing and pricing. Figure out bottles, UPC codes, and labels. I needed to get government approval, get the NPN number from Health Canada. First and foremost, I needed to keep my team safe, so there were about seven days where I was just working by myself during the day in the office, then in the lab at night, trying to coordinate everything from financing to packaging, with people in different time zones. We had our first shipment to our distributor by April 17, and launched online on May 1.
LAURA: Is that your quickest go-to-market for a product?
EVELYNE: Yes, that was definitely the quickest product I have ever launched. It’s funny how everything came together, from my label designer to the ingredient supplier. It was just nonstop, fire after fire, but then everybody was rising up to help. UPS was working with me through the night, making calls, getting packaging from China. They made sure that at least a few of my bottles made it on the flight coming into Canada — because there was a limit of 100 kilos a day from China. I was shocked by how everyone just jumped on to make it possible for us to get those products into market.
“For me, I’m doing it for my daughter, I’m doing it for my daughter’s friends, because if they don’t see us do it, if they don’t see us excelling, they will continue going around in circles. And there’s nothing that gives me more happiness than when I see another woman succeed.”
LAURA: And you launched another new product — Radiance Serum — on April 3rd, just three weeks after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. I’m assuming those plans were in the works prior, so how did you have to adapt? And how did it go?
EVELYNE: I had been formulating the Radiance Serum for the last two years, to support the physiological changes that happen as women transition into menopause. Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly I was wondering, what do we do? Do we launch the product? Do we not launch the product?”
I consulted with my team, and we agreed we just had to continue as if there was no pandemic going on. There were a few things we had to change, of course. Normally we would have a demo program going and all of that got cancelled — we quickly adapted by providing samples to stores, so they could continue to build that brand awareness for us. We had to focus on our online presence as well, and make sure that we’re providing an easy experience to buy online, including free shipping in North America.
It was nerve-wracking, but I kept telling myself, ‘Trust the process.’ And then our first batch sold out within two weeks. Actually, in terms of launch success, this has performed better than any other new product of ours.
LAURA: That’s amazing. You’ve had success pivoting quickly with hand sanitizer, and staying the course with your Radiance Serum. What do you think helped you through two great launches?
EVELYNE: It’s a few things. Like I said, trust in the process. Are you going to be scared? Yes. Are you going to doubt? Yes, but do it anyways. The plan has to continue, because ultimately, when I look on my wall, I see my targets, I see the goals. So, I keep working on the plan, adjusting it as we go, being flexible, but always bearing the targets in mind. This is a little detour, but still, the destination hasn’t changed.
The other piece is taking care of yourself, because stress is such a big deal. I’m always taking those mental health days, going to the mountains where my phone doesn’t work, taking that step back, and thinking, I’m still strong enough, I can be resilient, there’s absolutely nothing that does not have a solution to it.
It’s also thinking about what motivates you, which for me, is my daughter. When all this happened, I was motivated to build something that, a few years down the road, she can say, ‘You know what I saw when we had the pandemic? My mom launched this new product and this is how we survived.’ I strongly believe that young girls can not be the women they don’t see.
LAURA: It sounds like it really comes back to that original mission of yours, to build a brand that inspires your daughter and helps women?
For me, I’m doing it for my daughter, I’m doing it for my daughter’s friends, because if they don’t see us do it, if they don’t see us excelling, they will continue going around in circles. And there’s nothing that gives me more happiness than when I see another woman succeed. I just want to see as many women as possible build big businesses. We need to move away from that idea of, ‘I’m doing my own little thing in the corner.’
My mother was one of the pioneers in our county in Kisii, Kenya, talking about gender equality and development for women. I don’t want her work to be in vain, in a world where we’re still talking about the same thing over and over. We have it in our power as women to take action, but sometimes we need someone else’s help to conquer that fear so that we feel more confident to actually jump in the water — somebody has to start swimming in that cold, deep water first.
My advice: Be the first to jump in, and you might just be giving someone else permission to do the same.